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The mosquito has visited death on half the people who have ever lived. Photo/Alamy

A history of our deadliest predator, the mosquito

Historian Timothy C Winegard looks at mankind’s greatest adversary and fails to give it the respect it deserves.

What creature has killed the most humans? It should take barely a moment’s thought to discard those fearsome but statistically insignificant predators that stalk our nightmares: the shark, say, or the snake. A bit of lateral thinking will land on the murderous human, but the average toll we take on our own species – orchestrated campaigns of ethnic cleansing aside – doesn’t come close to the mosquito’s. Its annual average kill since 2000 has been about two million. We don’t manage a quarter of that. Statistical extrapolations suggest the insect has visited death on half the people who have ever lived.

The comparison is somewhat specious, since the mosquito is not a killer, but rather the principal vector of killer diseases (and only a few hundred of the 3500 mosquito species work that way). But that’s a cute distinction to someone with malaria, the parasite (technically a plasmodium) that attaches itself to the red blood cells and is, by far, the mosquito’s favourite weapon.

Malaria is an old disease: amber-encased mosquito specimens contain the infected blood of dinosaurs, it plagued our ancestors at least six million years ago and it killed King Tutankhamun at 18. And although its transmission confers no benefit on the mosquito (infecting humans is an incidental result, not the purpose, of its bloodsucking), the presence of the disease in a host makes that host more attractive to the mosquito: it’s a perfect circle of evolutionary advantage.

Timothy C Winegard, a historian at a minor American university, specialises in military history and it shows in this book, whose subtitle verges on a breach of trade description law. He spends scant time on the mosquito’s natural history, let alone its toll on humans who are not soldiers, yet virtually every battle from the defeat of Sennacherib in 701BC to the failure of the US in Vietnam is laid out in excruciating, geeky detail.

Making matters worse is that Winegard’s writing is never better than indifferent – and it is often dreadful. In the book’s very first line, he misuses “aggravating”, and he sprays adverbs and metaphors around like DDT, without pausing to think how nonsensical they are. A single example may stand for hundreds: having decided to describe malaria in Africa as “flying under the radar” of world attention, he cannot resist prefixing the phrase with “stealthily”. To the groups that have agitated loudly for decades for greater resources to be devoted to the problem, it must be galling to be implicitly accused of hiding it.

Meanwhile, his extravagant anthropomorphising of the mosquito (mating is called “passion”) both trivialises his subject and condescends to his reader.

For all that, fascinations are to be found – the historical import of opium’s antimalarial properties made a great sidebar – and the final chapters, which explore eradication campaigns, gene editing and the moral and biological unknowns of destroying such an ancient component of the ecosystem, get much closer to what the cover promised.

Readable popular histories of this sort have been a publishing mainstay for a generation now, and this one could and should have been much better than it is. Too long, marred by digression and desperately short of the human touch, it is an undertaking beyond the capacity of a well-intentioned but lacklustre writer.

THE MOSQUITO: A Human History of our Deadliest Predator, by Timothy C Winegard (Text, $38).

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.